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The Middle East is literally at the centre of the continental whole made up of Asia, Africa and Europe. This middle of the worlds, in many respects the cradle of humanity, is a land of intermixtures and exchanges, both in war and peace. Such a geographical centrality nourishes a form of political centrality that in 395 was structured around two of the most powerful empires of the time. It was from the Middle East that radiated the forces which extended their influence in neighbouring areas, an evolution that led to the Islamic expansion of the seventh and eighth centuries. But the frequent and violent wars in the Middle East have very rarely set against one another two coherent blocs, in terms of religious or ethnic affiliation. Even the internal polarization of Islam between Sunnis and Shiites took many generations to consolidate and assumed its modern dimension only in the 16th century, in the context of the confrontation between the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Persia.
This does not mean, however, that harmony and tolerance were the rule in the Middle East, far from it – but its contradictions are found in more complex forms than the community structures that are today taken for granted.
Jean-Pierre Filiu is professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po, Paris. A historian and an Arabist, he has also held visiting professorships at the universities of Columbia and Georgetown. Hurst and Oxford University Press published his “Arab Revolution” in 2011, “Gaza, a History” in 2014 (MEMO Book Award) and “From Deep State to Islamic State” in 2015, after University of California Press had published in 2011 his award-winning “Apocalypse in Islam”. His “Middle East, a political history, from 395 to the present” has just been out with Polity. His books have been translated in more than fifteen languages, including Arabic and Turkish.